Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Untold/Forgotten History of the Internet

Whether the Internet is a "medium" or a "terrain" has long been a query for me (with a bias towards the latter... It is an entirely new terrain much to be explored)

Some years back, I had building a database about the "untold/ forgotten story of internet" (and had forgotten it, myself) - and discovered it in one of the files today...

These are tit-bits from the history, before the corporate takeover of the internet, beginning 1993 - prior to which "hackers" were the good guys, and "nerds" represented the dark forces of commerce... (see later in this posting)

When the internet began, there was something (still is!) magical/ unknown/ exciting about this new terrain (and apparently, those who expanded and enlarged it were driven by a drive, that's long long forgotten)... Something to discover, to expand, to enhance the human potential/consciousness/imagination...

So, here are some interesting tit-bits about the magical/mythical roots of Internet (as a terrain) - specially, since one rarely talks about these - nowadays. They also highlight the basic characteristics - often not appreciated by most who use it - of this terrain/medium called Internet:

  • Marshall McLuhan - the guy who is equated with "Medium is the Message" - wrote in 1968: "Civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy and as it dissolves with the electronic revolution, we discover a tribal, integral awareness that manifests in a complete shift in our sensory awareness... (electronic society is) a resonating world akin to the old tribal echo chamber where magic will live again."

  • Mark Pesce, the inventor of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) was a drop out from MIT, which he found to be a "profoundly dehumanising place" (but then, "if you get thrown out of MIT, that's your first step in your career as a programmer.") In an interview in 1994, he said: "Both cyberspace and magical space are purely manifestation in imagination. Both spaces are constructed by your thoughts and beliefs. Korzybski says that the map is not the territory. Well, in magic, the map is the territory. And the same is true in cyberspace. There's nothing in that space you didn't bring in."

  • In 1989, T M Luhrmann published a survey study on pagan culture in modern society (Persuasions of the Witch's Craft), in which he found that a disproportionately large percentage of those who practiced paganism (in its various forms) were techies from IT field. Based on his interviews, he concluded: "both magic and computer science involve creating a world defined by chosen rules, and playing within their limits."

  • The term "Cyberspace" originate from a book by William Gibson, Neuromancer, published in 1986. Gibson described cyberspace as "consensual hallucination". For Gibson, cyberspace was "the point at which media (flow) together and surround us. It's the ultimate extension of the exclusion of daily life. With cyberspace as I describe it you can literally wrap yourself in media and not have to see what's really going on around you."

  • JRR Tolkein (Lord of the ring) was a cult figure among the counterculture techies of the 60s and 70s. The first comptergame, Dungeons and Dragons, was developed by two students in 1973, the year Tolkein died. Many of imageries and personalities were directly influenced by Tolkein's character, and obviously the plot was similar to Lord of the Rings

    Do these partly explain why magic continues to live with logic in the digital age? and why Harry Potter, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King, heavy metal, Hollywood macho and horror, Doom, etc. continue to fascinate? and why tyranny of reality fails to overpower the lores of virtual reality?...

    Behind this magical nature of the internet was also the basic DNA of internet... the activism, the original spirit of "digital culture" (based on the norm of sharing and collaboration) - till it got usurped by the "digital economy" (based on the rule of private property rights and competition)...

    Not many people remember now, that when Paul Baran, back in 1962 designed ARPAnet - the predecessor of Internet - the framework was to create a system for "distributed communication" which had no central control (which is what Internet is - and as recently as 1996 Singapore, Germany and China tried to control use of Internet, without much success).

    Not many people know/remember, either, that long back being a "Hacker" was the way to be. In 1984, Steven Levy had described the "Hacker Ethic" in his book "Hackers, Heros of the Computer Revolution" (full transcript here):

  • Access to computers should be unlimited and total.

  • Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!

  • All information should be free.

  • Mistrust authority — promote decentralization.

  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.

  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.

  • Computers can change your life for the better.

    Some examples of this "activism":

  • Ted Nelson , who invented "Hypertext" also wrote a book/manifesto titled "Computer Lib" in 1974?

  • the first invention of Steve Job and Wozneik - founders of Apple - was the "blue box" which you could use to make long distance calls at local rates

  • many members of Ken Kesey's "Merry Pranksters" (the guys who used to organise acid-trip festivals in the 60s) were actually techies - such as Stewart Brand (who actully coined the term "personal computer" in an article published in The Esquire in 1972)

    Jim Warren - a pioneer in microcomputing and the recepient of Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award - perhaps summarised the digital age the best:

    "It had its genetic coding in the '60s ... Anti-establishment, antiwar, pro-freedom, anti-discipline attitudes."

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